Maria Eagle: Public advocates can help victims in the fight for justice

Posted On: 
8th July 2019

Too often those bereaved in public disasters are left feeling sidelined. My Public Advocate Bill would ensure their voices are heard, writes Maria Eagle 

Teams stand for a minute's silence to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster
Credit: 
PA Images

After a remarkable 25-year campaign, the Hillsborough Independent Panel finally delivered the full, devastating truth of what happened on that terrible day in April 1989. But a quarter of a century is far too long to wait for truth and justice. 

The Public Advocate Bill, which I will present this week, arises out of the experience of Lord Michael Wills and I as Ministers in the MoJ during the establishment of that panel, and out of my experience supporting the Hillsborough families in their fight for justice.

Hillsborough was not the first large scale disaster resulting in terrible loss of life and it has not been the last. I have dealt with others in my time as an MP such as the aftermath of the sinking of the MV Derbyshire. There are many other examples, the loss of the Marchioness, various terrorist atrocities, such as Lockerbie and more recently the horrors of Grenfell Tower.

One thing that bereaved families and injured survivors always experience in the aftermath of these devastating public disasters in varying degrees is an alienation from the official processes which follow.

This extends to families and survivors feeling totally excluded often feeling that there is a cover up by state actors or those with a financial interest in the outcome of investigations to avoid being blamed. Families and survivors are nowhere near the centre of these processes – they often feel treated as an inconvenient irrelevance to all the proceedings and their needs to know what happened to their loved one, to stop it ever happening again, seems to be pushed to one side in the official scramble to avoid blame and protect reputations.

This Bill would provide a better way of responding to large scale public disasters on behalf of bereaved relatives and survivors.

It proposes the establishment of an independent, adequately resourced advocate for those bereaved in public disasters and injured survivors.

The Public Advocate would be located in a Government Department and able to call on its resources but crucially would be independent of Government direction or control.

The Advocate would be required to act if two conditions are met. Firstly, in the advocate’s opinion an event had occurred which led to large scale loss of life and involved serious health and safety issues, a failure of regulation or other events of serious concern.

Secondly, 50% plus one or more of the representatives of the deceased and injured survivors would have to ask the advocate to act.

The advocate would then act as a representative for the interests of the bereaved and survivors and act as an advisor and guide for them. The advocate would not replace solicitors and barristers acting in legal proceedings for the bereaved and injured but would fulfil a different and additional role.

The advocate, as a data controller, would establish a panel, like the HIP in consultation with representatives of the deceased and survivors to review all documentation at a much earlier stage than happened with Hillsborough, thus facilitating transparency and disclosure by way of reports to the Lord Chancellor and to Parliament.

Such transparency was key to getting to the truth of Hillsborough but came many years too late. Getting it done sooner could prevent things going so wrong for families of the deceased and injured survivors and get to the truth sooner.

This would be an important improvement to public policy in reaction to the frequent examples of things going wrong in the aftermath of public disasters for the families of the deceased and injured survivors.

It would also be a fitting legacy for the brave and unflinching fight of the Hillsborough families and survivors who for 30 years have been telling me that they want truth and justice and they don’t want any other bereaved families to have to endure the agony they have endured with such dignity and determination.

Maria Eagle is Labour MP for Garston and Halewood. Her Public Advocate Bill will be presented on Wednesday 10 July